Fox News pollsters phone it in

A May 15-17 Fox News poll conducted by a new team of researchers at that network is heavy on entertainment value, but fails to handle a key question about President Obama’s reelection in the best possible manner.

Evidently, Fox News has sacked Opinion Dynamics, its former data collectors, and replaced them with the duo of Anderson Robbins Research (Democrats, we are told, with some prior relationship with Opinion Dynamics) and Shaw & Company Research, (a professor at the University of Texas with Republican ties). Its survey asked 910 voters across the nation a somewhat standard question about Obama’s reelection. Fifty percent responded that the president deserves reelection, and 43 percent ventured that the country would be better off with someone else. Importantly, 5 percent volunteered that the question was being asked too soon and that it would depend on who runs against him. The wisdom of this prescient tiny minority will be revisited shortly.

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But then the Foxy pollsters stunned me by prematurely and incompletely asking straight out, “Just your best guess: As of today, do you think Barack Obama will be reelected president in 2012, or not?” This time 57 percent said the president will be reelected, while just 36 percent said that he will not. Curiously, the new crosstabs crew at Fox didn’t bother to record “too soon” or “depends” responses on this question, as they had on the question about Obama deserving reelection. Color me curious.

Asking Americans whether the president deserves reelection (or if we’d be better off with someone else) is clearly soliciting an opinion about preference. But asking whether the president will, in fact, be reelected is seeking a prediction more than a preference. When asking for a prediction, it seems that one should not just elicit the forced dichotomy, but rather offer an uncertainty option, or at the least some range of probabilities. We are so far from knowing Obama’s actual Republican opponent that it seems imprudent to reduce the scenario to a simple yes or no.

An AP/Ipsos poll conducted a few days earlier in May also asked about the likelihood of Obama being reelected. In that poll, only 45 percent said they believe Obama will be elected, well below Fox’s 57 percent. Notably, and perhaps accounting for the difference in the two polls, AP/Ipsos gets credit for at least showing some sensitivity to the uncertainty factor. Its report discloses that 9 percent voluntarily said something like “it depends” or “maybe.” Imagine how many people might say that if it were offered as one of the options that are read to the voters being polled.

Getting back to Fox, we have to ask why they would offer voters such a simplistic choice. Was it to get the hot headline “Majority says Obama to get reelected,” and thereby stir up the mostly GOP base of Fox News viewers? Was it an insidious plot by a Democrat pollster and his college-professor pal to dispirit the Republican base, ending hope for change? Or was it just sloppy work? Before you pick your poison, know that I am being just a little bit flippant in framing these explanatory options. I imagine that, in reality, the question was just a lame attempt at being a little provocative and edgy. But good polling should aspire to more than simply providing entertainment for the masses. Professor Shaw, of all people, should be attuned to this objective.

If a TV weather forecaster wants to predict the probability for rain tomorrow, he or she is not going to say simply yes or no. Armed with radar charts and other data, the forecaster will state a probability of precipitation. Fox News polls should allow us all a similar opportunity.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.

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